Why write an autobiographical novel? Shouldn’t fiction depart from life and show us a world that’s bigger, weirder and more dramatic than our own? ‘One risks losing one’s privacy in fiction,’ Yiyun Li writes, ‘and to be anti-autobiographical lessens that danger.’ She was born in 1972 in Beijing, a daughter of the Mao regime for whom ‘privacy as a concept was not present.’ Li shared a bedroom with her maternal grandfather, and ‘reacted strongly against the lack of psychological space’. Reading was her means of vacating the present, a fugitive act that held ‘the world at bay’. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, her university class was conscripted for a year ‘to prevent future insubordination’. A blurry photocopy of Gone with the Wind circulated among her peers, but Li read differently from the other recruits. ‘I did not see myself in Scarlett O’Hara … To read oneself into another person’s tale is the opposite of how and why I read. To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one’s existence.’ Like Marianne Moore, whom she quotes admiringly (‘The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;/not in silence, but restraint’), she saw literature as an inoculation against feeling, a means of becoming ‘an emotional hanger-on’. She tells a story about once watching a toddler get upset: instead of throwing a tantrum, the boy made his ‘body still’ and ‘lifeless’, turning his eyes ‘from panic into glassiness’ until he no longer seemed to be present. This, she thinks, is what writing is like. ‘Practitioners of that vanishing act,’ Li says, ‘develop the belief – illusion, really – that one can exist unobserved.’
In 1996, she emigrated to the United States to study immunology at the University of Iowa:
I had chosen the field – if one does not count the practical motives of wanting a reason to leave China and of having a skill to make a living – because I had liked the working concept of the immune system … The word ‘immune’ (from the Latin immunis, in- +munia, services, obligations) is among my favourites in the English language, the possession of immunity – to illnesses, to follies, to love and loneliness and troubling thoughts and unalleviated pains.
But then she abandoned science and began to write fiction. ‘I had a blind confidence that in writing I could will myself into a non-entity [and] … for a few years relished that status.’ Her first novel, The Vagrants (2009), was about ‘an unrepentant counter-revolutionary’ in a provincial Chinese city; Kinder than Solitude, about the poisoning of a Tiananmen Square protester, followed four years later. Both were studiously impersonal. Fatalism sets Li’s early characters apart from their Western counterparts. In great novels, a character thinks in Kinder than Solitude, people come ‘to an uncomplaining end’, like ‘Doctor Zhivago giving up his life when he could not catch up with Lara in the street’. Li’s characters, despite their best efforts, are hostages to fortune. In The Vagrants, Gu Shan has her vocal cords cut when her boyfriend informs on her for badmouthing the Cultural Revolution. It’s ironic given that, long ago, when she was still high on the tenets of Mao, Gu turned up with her comrades to purge her family home of bourgeois effects – her mother’s silk blouses, her father’s graduation robe. Years later her death sentence is expedited so that a party official in need of a transplant can get one of her kidneys, and her father forks out for the bullet used in her execution. As a final indignity, her corpse is commandeered by a pervert: ‘Two glass jars of formaldehyde, in which [her] severed breasts and private parts were on display, were uncovered by the police.’ Did she ever stand a chance?
It’s strange that Li’s fiction replicates the structures of the world she sought to escape. Everywhere there are bayoneted rifles, lunch coupons, couples on the run from the Birth Control Officer, postal workers denounced as dog sons of the evil landlord class. A dancer in the Peking Opera turns to prostitution when he’s fired for fancying the other boys. The azaleas that bloom in the spring are ‘red as the colour of the revolution’. An ageing spinster is conned into marrying a man who’s dying of Alzheimer’s, but counts herself lucky on account of his private bathroom: ‘For all her life she has used public bathrooms, fighting with other slippery bodies for the lukewarm water drizzling from rusty showers.’ Invisibility is a ‘luxury’ that few of Li’s characters are allowed. The subordination of the individual is present in her grammar too: ‘A word I hate to use in English is “I”. It is a melodramatic word. In Chinese, a language less grammatically strict, one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip that embarrassing “I”, or else replace it with “we”.’ Both The Vagrants and Kinder than Solitude are narrated from multiple perspectives. Li’s prose pans across Chinese society – lingering over a vulnerable subject, but only long enough to pique the reader’s attention. (A cleaner slips while polishing a statue of Chairman Mao and ends up spreadeagled in a pool of his own blood. The camera shifts.)
Li’s telegraphic style depends on speed, which works to amplify the sense of cruelty and remorselessness she wants to transmit. Kinder than Solitude is less successful than The Vagrants because its cruelty seems so sluggish. A few months after Tiananmen Square, Shaoai, a young protester, is poisoned and left brain-dead. The novel begins 21 years later, after she has finally died. The narrative tacks back and forth between 1989 and 2010, alternating between three suspects, Boyang, Moran and Ruyu, friends of Shaoai’s who all had access to the poison. You can tell what Li intended: the truth about an unsolved crime is patched together from partial testimonies; the uncertainty about what happened on that day in 1989 is reflected in the form. The trouble isn’t the novel’s lack of a central authority, but that the richness of the characters’ imaginative lives is neither fully explored nor suggestively implied. Everybody hedges their bets. Boyang, an entrepreneurial sugar-daddy who stays in China to oversee Shaoai’s medical care – from a distance – is ‘selfish but not enough to be immune to the pains caused by his selfishness; adamant in refusing to suffer yet not blind enough to others’ suffering’. It’s all so abstract. Consider Moran, considering herself:
To be able, at any moment, to pull up roots minimally put down, to be able to exit without being noticed or put down, to be able to exit without being noticed or missed – these things gave her an odd sense of virginal freedom. Anything concerning the heart leaves it in confusion; she had found this motto in one of the Buddhist books she had read after Shaoai’s poisoning; to desire nothing is to have no vulnerability. But how many hearts could truly succeed in keeping themselves immune to all that would make them susceptible?
Ruyu, the ‘lonely, vicious, remorseless orphan’ is eventually unveiled as the poisoner. She had been raped by Shaoai one night as she slept, but even she is capable only of half-hearted revenge: ‘If there was a poisonous drink I mixed up and left on my desk, it was my own business,’ she says. ‘Shaoai’s problem, like many people’s, was not knowing how not to mind other people’s business.’ These characters drift along like ghosts, and their misfortunes have no more effect on us than ours have on them. Fictional people aren’t like real ones, Li suggests: they don’t interfere in your business or care about your politics; they have neither the time nor the inclination to ask you questions. ‘What else does one want from people but that kind of freedom, an existence closest to non-existence?’
In 2017 Li published a memoir about her writing – and about her mental illness. Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is partly a reflection on the false distinction between autobiography and fiction, and partly a corrective to Li’s long-held belief that it was possible to put every word she wrote ‘up for examination’ to prove she had ‘let nothing from [her] life slip through the cracks’. ‘No one is exempt from being autobiographical,’ she now realises. Even Marianne Moore, ‘a master at withholding, is a highly autobiographical poet’: ‘Moore, whose melodrama was internalised to the point of annihilation, gave access to only one witness – herself.’ She also wanted to explain why Kinder than Solitude hadn’t worked. During 2012, while she was working on that novel, Li had twice attempted suicide. The writing of it, she explained in Dear Friend, ‘was so intertwined with [my] rapid unravelling that I had started to view the book – in which a murder, half-heartedly intended, takes place – as a haphazard murderer of many good things in my life’. Where the immune system had once been a metaphor for Li’s writing life – words as antibodies that fended off bad emotions – now words had turned on her. ‘As a body suffers from an autoimmune disease, my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.’
What if you were struggling to make your characters come to life, the memoir asks, but instead your own life began to seem unreal?
Can one’s life be at the mercy of one’s characters? The possibility seems ludicrous, yet in my unravelling they were no longer my allies, confiscating from me the boundary I had so adamantly maintained between writing and the rest of living, which, I had believed until then, was to live minimally, to live but on the surface, to not live. One cannot sustain that kind of in-between – living and yet not living – forever. For the first time I wanted my life to be as legitimate as my characters’, as solid, as habitable. Make me real, as you are to me – this cry could only be directed towards my characters.
In the course of writing Kinder than Solitude, Li began to fear her characters’ ‘indifference’. ‘Again and again they evict me from their world,’ she complained, ‘oblivious of any attachment. Now go back to your real life.’ It’s a terrifying prospect for anybody who makes a living by making people up, that they should come to depend on the validation of their characters. But this idea is central to Li’s new novel, Where Reasons End.
One morning, a woman drops off her teenage son at school. Eight hours later she finds out that he has killed himself. Where Reasons End is a series of 16 dialogues between the dead boy, Nikolai, and his grieving mother. Their conversations begin a few weeks after his death and take place ‘in a world unspecified in time and space’, ‘a world made up by words and words only, no images, no sounds’. Mother and son do not discuss Nikolai’s suicide, the details of which remain elusive. Where Reasons End is not about ‘how’ or ‘why’ – the ‘unanswerable questions’ to which suicide gives rise – but about whether fiction can give us back, even briefly, somebody we’ve lost. Nikolai thinks the idea is naff – the premise of ‘a mediocre self-help book’ cooked up by a ‘middling delusionist’ who also happens to be his mother. ‘The essence of growing up,’ he explains in the first of their dialogues, ‘is to play hide and seek with one’s mother successfully.’
There’s nothing like plot here – presumably because there’s nothing like plot in Nikolai’s posthumous existence. In its absence, he and his mother mostly talk about language and its relation to the real world: they discuss the etymology of English words like ‘tragedy’ (from the Greek for ‘goat song’) or ‘stupid’ (from the Latin stupidus, to be numbed or astonished). Nikolai is the kind of child who dreams he’s a negative number and can’t figure out his own square root. He’s an advocate of the Oxford comma, and distrusts people who don’t know the difference between the oboe and the clarinet. He decided to name the family dog Quintus, and dismissed War and Peace after a hundred pages because the French passages were annoying. On the superiority of bakers to writers, he has this to say: ‘A cake is a one-draft story. You don’t get to revise.’ ‘Pass-me-ups’ is what he calls the cashmere scarves that his mother inherited after his suicide. He thinks for himself and is not at all sure that these imaginary conversations – in which he’s less a willing participant than a ventriloquist’s toy – aren’t a violation. When his mother puts words in his mouth, he likens it to dreaming of another person, something which has always seemed to him a form of trespassing: ‘How do you know if someone wants to be in your dream?’ It’s a good question, and the sort of meaningful nonsense which makes him – so fatigued, thin-skinned and full of teenage chagrin – come alive on the page.
Philip Larkin once described Sue in Jude the Obscure as ‘too irritating not to have been a real person’. (You see what he means: ‘I couldn’t bear to let you go – possibly to Arabella again – and so I got to love you, Jude.’) Nikolai’s jibes at his mother – ‘dense and gormless’; ‘mutton dressed as lamb’; ‘inelastic mind’ – are petty enough to bring him to the brink of life. But the real reason for pausing over Nikolai’s fictionality is the dedication on the novel’s flyleaf: ‘In memory of Vincent Kean Li (2001-17)’. Like Nikolai, Vincent was 16 when he killed himself; like Li, the mother in Where Reasons End is a 44-year-old writer.
Nikolai’s mother once gave him ‘a life of flesh and blood’; now that he’s dead, she sets out to give him a life through words. But language is an imperfect medium – you can’t always get words to behave the way you want. Here is Nikolai:
If someone asks you, Is there something wrong?, to be a good mannered and considerate person you should answer, Thank you for asking but nothing is wrong. You don’t say, Thank you for asking but nothing is right. People would freak out if you said that, and if they freaked out, what would you say? Oh, please don’t worry, even though nothing is right, nothing is left, either.
Language is ‘finickier than life’. In one of their dialogues, the mother says she spent the days after Nikolai’s death in his room, ‘knitting, unravelling, knitting, unravelling’.
Which yarn did you use?
What did you make?
What were you planning to knit before you made nothing?
The circular dialogue, which pushes forward but gets you nowhere, seems to mimic the mother’s Penelopean knitting, and is at once painful and insouciant; the philosophical bleakness, the relentless control of tone, is both grave and funny. Words ‘live on the page, in a two-dimensional world’; look at them too closely, press too hard for meaning, and they’re likely to unravel.
Elsewhere in Where Reasons End, language seems to matter too much. Mother and son debate the relative merits of adjectives and nouns: she insists that ‘a life’s story can be told by the simplest nouns’; he maintains that ‘nouns are limited.’ ‘A noun is a wall,’ Nikolai says, ‘but an adjective is a window.’ His mother, ‘who opposes anything judgmental’, can’t stand adjectives, and complains that even the blandest – ‘Happy, sad. Long, short. Live, dead. Young, old’ – claim an ‘entitlement to judge’. Nikolai, who is as hard on himself as he is on others, thinks that judgment is precisely the point. ‘Perfect’ is his favourite adjective because it’s ‘free from comparison, perfect rejects superlative’. ‘I don’t mind that life is not perfect,’ he tells his mother. ‘I do mind that I cannot perfect myself in an imperfect life.’ If Wittgenstein is right, and the limits of one’s language prescribe the limits of one’s world, what happens when you fail to live up to the adjectives you choose – when the words you use are stupid? One thing you might do is give up on language entirely, or give up on life. ‘What if he loses interest in words altogether,’ Nikolai’s mother frets. ‘After all he had done so once before – suicide can be understood as a vow of silence.’
Are words bad for us? In Dear Friend, Li remembers an interviewer asking her if there was a book she read too young. Images swim into her head: ‘conversing skulls, meditative mountains, friends stabbing each other in the back, a woman standing poised before her execution’. Perhaps, Li thinks, her ‘encounter with Turgenev did take place too early’: ‘My mind was porous then.’ Nikolai’s mother wonders if she paid enough attention to what her son read. Was his obsession with Les Misérables a sign of something ominous? Should his fourth-grade poetry’s ‘inconsolable bleakness’ have raised alarm? ‘Is that how a mother loses a child?’ she wonders. ‘Is that how any person loses any person, by not understanding the treachery of words?’ Nikolai’s preschool teacher writes to her, distraught: ‘I thought we prepared him to live?’
But how can you convince somebody that living is worthwhile when you’re not sold on it yourself? ‘One’s wish to die can be as blind and intuitive as one’s will to live, yet the latter is never questioned,’ Li wrote in Dear Friend. Depression, she went on, ‘is either a dictator or the closest friend I have ever had. Some days I battle it until we both fall down like injured animals. That is when I wonder: What if I become less than nothing when I get rid of this emptiness? What if this emptiness is what keeps me going?’ Does this talk make her a bad mother? (In Kinder than Solitude, a character wonders if ‘the thought of suicide’ is something capable of spreading ‘like a virus’.) ‘I feel bad for you,’ Nikolai says. ‘You really didn’t think through everything before you had children.’ In the years before he kills himself, Nikolai repeatedly asks her: ‘If you write about suffering, if you understand suffering, why did you give me a life?’
Like most of us, Nikolai holds everything against his mother. ‘I don’t want to feel the obligation to befriend you,’ he warns her. The sign on his bedroom door says ‘STAY OUT’. One could read Where Reasons End as a novel about ‘a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy’ – already ‘three clichés’, as Li admits. Or one could say it’s about the intrusiveness that is every mother’s prerogative. On the one hand, Li believes that suicide is a ‘private decision’, that ‘calling Nikolai’s action inexplicable [is] like calling a migrant bird ending on a new continent lost.’ On the other, she can’t bring herself to leave him alone: ‘To love is to trespass.’ ‘I was almost you once,’ she tells Nikolai, ‘and that’s why I have allowed myself to make up this world to talk with you.’ Li once ‘relished … living among the characters who did not know [her] existence’; now her existence depends on Nikolai’s recognition of their shared world, ‘made by words’ and ‘wilfully sustained’.
It is strange that this experiment in autobiographical fiction was occasioned by the death of Li’s son – because it was family, too, that led her to write fiction that was as anti-autobiographical as possible. In Dear Friend, it emerges that the most important context for the impersonality of Li’s early fiction wasn’t the Maoist state, or the dictates of Chinese grammar, but her own mother – the ‘family despot, unpredictable in both her callousness and her vulnerability’. She’s the quintessential ‘tiger mom’, often overtaken by ‘inexplicable rage’, and given to wishing her daughter – who’s unable to reciprocate her affection – ‘the ugliest death’. ‘I don’t even need to lay my eyes on you to know everything about you,’ her mother warns, ‘you came from my body.’ Like Cordelia, Li responds to the parental demand to falsify love with silence. She ditches her mother by ditching her mother tongue, and decides to write in English because her mother can’t read it. Even now, she refuses to allow her work to be translated into Mandarin.
Li is an escape artist, but she is also a mother who won’t permit the escape of her son. The only place she can keep him is in fiction. ‘Where else can we meet but in stories now?’ She is trying to ‘catch words yet to be said’, to remember the future of which she’s been cheated. ‘Time points only in one direction,’ she writes early on, and so to write this book she has ‘made time irrelevant’. This reminds Nikolai of Through the Looking-Glass. When Alice complains that ‘I can’t remember things before they happen’ the White Queen chides her: ‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.’ And when, towards the end of the novel, Nikolai says, ‘I am in fiction. I am fiction now,’ what he means is that only in fiction can time’s arrow be disregarded, so memory can recall things that haven’t yet happened – like ‘this year’s flypapers catching next year’s flies before they are born’.
It seems fantastical – but then real events can be fantastical too. Consider this. Yiyun Li is working on a novel, Kinder than Solitude, in which one character kills another. In the course of writing it, she tries to kill herself twice; she fails; she recovers, at which point she writes a non-fiction book that’s partly an explanation for the failure of the novel in which one character kills another and partly about her own thoughts about killing herself. This non-fiction book, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life, is published. Two months later her eldest son kills himself. By this time Li has already begun working on another novel about a writer, exactly her own age, who loses her son to suicide. ‘I had not known the same thing would happen to me when I was 44,’ Li writes in Where Reasons End. ‘Agh, now people will blame me,’ Nikolai complains. ‘When you publish the novel people will think you’ve given the woman that story because of me.’ Could it have happened any other way? ‘One cannot relive age 12 to unread Turgenev.’ In Kinder than Solitude, people have the good sense to steer clear of Shaoai’s house. ‘Bad feng shui,’ the neighbours say.